Engines and Powerhouses evidence published

In what now seems like the distant past, before the Brexit vote and the change of government, the House of Commons launched an inquiry looking at the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine and government policy towards regional growth. (You can read my thoughts on the Northern Powerhouse post-referendum here).

The written submissions to the inquiry have just been published. Of the 50 submissions, a quick count suggests that least a quarter are written by a university, a university group, or an institute based out of a university. Clearly universities are taking the regional growth agenda seriously.

Following the change of government, the committee will now look ‘more broadly at Industrial Strategy, rather than focussing on specific regional models’. Hopefully some of the good practice and lessons learned around forming strong regional links will be taken forward.

Work by Centre for Cities, looking at lessons learned from the Rhine-Ruhr (Germany) and Randstad (Netherlands) regions, found that these areas were successful not because of transport connections between their respective cities, but that ‘strong regional economies require strongly performing cities at their heart’, with a high concentration of knowledge-based businesses and highly skilled workers. This perhaps explains the high level of university engagement with regional policy in the UK.

The Rhine-Ruhr and Randstad regions were part of the inspiration for the Northern Powerhouse. Hopefully the importance of knowledge and skills as the basis for strong economies won’t be lost with a wider focus on Industrial Strategy rather than specific regional models.

I wrote Universities UK’s submission to the inquiry – read it here.

Photo: Kranhaus, Cologne on Flickr

Sim University

In Sim University YOU are the vice chancellor!

Introducing the latest instalment in the award-winning Sim franchise: manage your own university!

Will you guide a multi-faculty university to the top of the global league tables, or sit at the helm of a small specialist institution?

Will you become a pillar of your local community, helping the disadvantaged and working with small businesses? Or will you look to attract international students and form multi-country research partnerships?

You’ve just been hired. You have a board of governors on your back, local newspapers watching your every move, and students looking for jobs after graduating (and a great time before then). League tables are constantly tracking your rise or fall.

How will you balance the books and grow your reputation? Will you launch an aggressive expansion campaign, constructing lots of shiny buildings to attract students and staff, or focus on forming partnerships? Will you open overseas campuses, or build incubation centres for student startups?

How will you keep your staff and students happy? Will you pay salaries above the local average, or give free laptops to students? Your star academic is ruffling feathers – do you fire them or promote them?

In Sim University YOU are the vice chancellor!

Exclusive to the UK Brexit edition: prepare for the Teaching Excellence Framework, lobby the Home Office on student visa regulations, form regional alliances, and dabble in Higher and Degree Apprenticeships!

university_sc4-1

The case for simulators

Simulators can be a valuable testing ground. In a fascinating tour through the history of city building games, Richard Moss notes how urban planners used the original SimCity (released 1989) to test existing ideas and inspire new ones:

Playing SimCity helped develop our understanding—or mental model, as Will Wright [Sim City’s founder] calls it—of the urban environment that so much of the world’s population lives in, and it took some of the mystery out of why urban planners make the seemingly bizarre decisions that they do.

If you thought you could improve traffic flows by making the roads five times wider and staggering residential blocks with commercial and industrial ones, you could try it and see (spoiler: it doesn’t work—traffic always expands to fill road capacity, and such a zoning policy would lower land values and increase pollution). If you believed a nearby rail line was increasing crime in your area, you could model your city in the game and experiment with changes.

…the city builders of tomorrow will likely be all about exploring the future of real-world city design. After all, city builders were always—right from the very beginning—about building a utopia, and our best hope of one day achieving a perfect built environment is to practice in simulations first.1

Modern simulators have become increasingly sophisticated. One city planner has said that SimCity 4’s traffic simulator is ‘actually more advanced than what most traffic engineers use in real life’. The game has been used to model suburban sprawl.

She built more police stations in Providence than probably exist in all of Southeastern New England, swapped out the electric power plant for a nuclear one, and bulldozed the church

Others have used simulators as tests of competence for leadership roles. In a great article about the real mayors of SimCity, Jason Koebler tells the story of the 1990 Democratic primary election in Providence, Rhode Island, where a 15 year old freelancer for the local newspaper invited five mayoral candidates to compete against each other in a game of SimCity. One candidate didn’t take the test too seriously. She ‘built more police stations in Providence than probably exist in all of Southeastern New England, swapped out the electric power plant for a nuclear one, and bulldozed the church’. In a strongly-Catholic area, some felt this lost her the primary.

Some fare better. Koebler writes how in 2002 mayoral candidates in Warsaw, Poland played SimCity 3000. Lech Kaczynski won the competition, won the election, and eventually became the president of Poland.

So might there be a case for a university simulator? Universities are highly complex and higher education policy is interlinked with wider policies on economic growth, employability, skills, education, cities,2 internationalism and immigration. No two institutions are alike, and some are unrecognisable from one another. But I still think there could be some merit in a university simulator. I don’t suggest Sim University would make a good selection exercise for prospective vice chancellors, but we could test new ideas and also understand the complexity of effectively managing a university. I might be the only person who would play it though…

Images from SimCity 4


  1. Here is an example of a game created by a professor from the University of Southern California School of Architecture that aims to contribute to the discussion about the future of cities. 
  2. Incidentally, SimCity 4 confirms the important role universities play in cities. Josh Dzieza in the Daily Beast: ‘Education in SimCity is a sort of wonder drug: if you build a university, people get sick less, commit less crime, build solar panels on their roofs, get wealthier, and are generally better off. They also start to complain more about bad city services and pollution, so depending on what sort of Sim mayor you are it could have drawbacks.’ 

Four reasons to look at universities and urbanism in Ghana

Universities meet education and skills needs, but are also local development actors in their own right. In Ghana they can play an important role in both

Ghana faces a set of challenges similar to many emerging nations…

Ghana is an ‘African Lion’: a fast-growing economy, falling levels of vulnerable employment and rising productive employment led to Ghana becoming a lower-middle income country in 2007. However, there are skills gaps in the areas of medicine and health, engineering and technical skills, limited job opportunities in the formal sector for those leaving university, and the proportion of the labour force leaving tertiary education rose just 2 percent to 5.4 percent from 1992 to 2013.

…including the transition to a ‘knowledge economy’

In a paper submitted to the African Center for Economic Transformation, Baah-Boateng and Baffour-Awuah lament the gap that opened in per capita income between Ghana and South Korea from 1950 – when incomes were broadly similar – to today, when South Korea’s output is six times higher. They cite a World Bank paper that suggests ‘at least half of the difference is due to South Korea’s success in acquiring and using knowledge’. Their paper finishes with a strong set of policy recommendations (that are applicable nearly anywhere in the world), including the participation of industry in curriculum design, more internships during courses, placing university staff in industry, and government intervention to subside expensive technical courses at public universities.1

As I’ve noted before, creating better jobs requires making difficult decisions in education policy to match labour market demand.

Ghana

Ghana is a case study of global urbanisation…

In 2015 51.9 percent of Ghana’s population lived in urban areas, broadly similar to 54 percent globally in 2014. Ghana’s urban population will reach 72.3 percent by 2050, in line with 70 percent globally. Urbanisation is moving much faster than planning.

…which will bring challenges universities can help solve

UN Habitat recommends government collaboration with universities in Ghana to improve planning and to address sustainable urban planning principles. Accra, for example, is at risk of flooding and – as Rotterdam has demonstrated – universities can help city planners to simultaneously prepare against disasters and create a better place to live and work.

In the Greater Accra region, 40 kilometres from the capital, the new urban area of Ningo-Prampram is rapidly growing. Urban strategies stress the ‘very limited timeframe to avoid unplanned sprawl and transform Ningo-Prampram into a thriving and prosperous compact, connected, socially inclusive and resilient city, which would be a sustainable development example for the country of Ghana and for the region as a whole’. A ‘university city’ in the northeast would offer ‘residential areas and services for students, professors and researchers, developing innovative agriculture and forestry processes that are tested in the fertile central park and the northern irrigation lands, improving crop production and fostering food security’. This is an excellent example of the campus working with the city to test new ideas before rolling them out further – seen elsewhere in the form of smart campuses.

Photos: Cape Coast and Ghana on Flickr


  1. Although there are objections from within Ghana’s universities to relying on the taxpayer for funding. 

Rebalancing: a case study of South Korea

Previous governments restricted the expansion of universities in Seoul. In the 2000s, a new government put universities in charge of regional growth

Discussions over ‘rebalancing’ the economy outside of London by strengthening other regions – explored in part one and part two of this miniseries – are not unique to the UK.1 South Korean academic Haknoh Kim writes that:

Balanced development is not a new policy goal in South Korea. Two basic facts – too heavy a concentration in the “Seoul capital region” and a very limited degree of political decentralization – have aggravated the disparities across regions in Korea for a long time… the Seoul capital region, only 11.8% of the South Korea’s total areas, accommodates 46% of the population, 57% of all manufacturing firms, about 70% of enrolled university students, 2/3 of financial activities.

In the mid-2000s the South Korean government prioritised decentralisation and balanced development as a national priority, but, unlike previous governments, saw this ‘as a means to strengthening the competitiveness of the country as a whole’.2 Yong-Sook Lee, an academic at Korea University, explains how balanced national development was encouraged through innovation:

…the PCBND [Presidential Committee on Balanced National Development] set up 14 regional innovation councils with 725 commissioners across the country… These councils were designed to encourage local initiatives in creating and implementing regional policy. To achieve self-sustaining endogenous development, the PCBND pursued a Nuri [New University for Regional Innovation] project that nurtures local talent by supporting local universities. In 2004, the government allocated a five year grant of 1.4 trillion won [about £900m at today’s rate] for cultivating local talent in promoting regional strategic industries. In 2006, a grant of 260 billion won [£170m] was awarded to 109 local universities in non-capital regions… Furthermore, the PCBND placed emphasis on reinforcing networks between local universities and local industries for the purpose of boosting R&D activities in non-capital regions.

Universities seem to play a particularly prominent role in South Korea. Kim expands on the New University for Regional Innovation concept:

NURI promotes “competition” within respective provincial regions by concentrating financial support on excellent projects selected in each region. It is worth noting that local universities form the project headquarters in NURI programs. They should include in their project teams other regional innovation actors such as other interlinked universities, research institutes, local authorities, business firms, or NGOs. This way, the principal universities serve to build and expand innovative networks between business, academia, public authorities, and other related actors.

Arguably, business is underrepresented. Here is the composition of the Daegu-Gyeongbuk Regional Innovation Council in 2006, where universities are nearly a quarter of members but business less than 10 percent:

Category Number of councillors
Local/regional authorities (including civil services) 23
Research institutes 7
Civil society (including NGOs) 19
Universities 24
Business 9
Press 6
Innovation supporting agencies 12
Total 100

Kim concludes that ‘the emergence of regions as an autonomous and important actor in the development of the country is quite a remarkable progress in Korean society’. However, ‘Korea is lagging behind in that it lacks “regional experimentalism” found in Europe’, mainly due to a lack of ‘sufficient autonomy and independent resources despite the participatory government’s emphasis on bottom-up approach’.

Whilst universities have been instrumental to South Korean attempts at rebalancing, genuine autonomy, devolved resources and partnership between important local actors are required for regions to be strengthened. It would be valuable to see progress in the ten years since the two academic articles referenced here.

This blog is in three parts. Previously we looked at the future of the Northern Powerhouse, and how universities can help realise the benefits of agglomeration.

Photo: Daegu, Korea on Flickr


  1. My interest in South Korea was piqued by a single reference in the excellent Nations and the Wealth of Cities publication by the two Greg Clarks: ‘the national government has employed a strategy to diversify economic activity from the dominant Seoul capital region by incentivising clusters and universities to scale up in the regional cities. The complementary economic roles of Busan’s seaport and Daegu’s manufacturing expertise have also been significantly supported’. 
  2. Previous administrations tried to rebalance the economy by many means, including applying brakes on Seoul’s development by restricting the expansion of universities, factories, shops and other development that might attract migrants. Did we see an echo of this in the UK, albeit under a different policy narrative, in 2015 with the proposed crackdown on satellite university campuses in London, ostensibly to stop exploitation by economic migrants? 

Four ways universities can ensure effective agglomeration

Councils and local authorities outside of the larger cities have less experience of devolution. Here’s how universities can help

Yesterday we explored a possible widening of devolution in England beyond the 10 deals in place. These deals cover 16.1 million people mostly in larger urban areas. The highest profile devolution has been within the so-called Northern Powerhouse, with Manchester as its unofficial capital. The relative leadership strength of Manchester and history of close cooperation between its constituent local authorities has allowed it to forge a path that others outside London will struggle to emulate.

The driving concept behind the Northern Powerhouse is agglomeration. Devolution without agglomeration is certainly possible, but the sum-greater-than-the-parts benefits that arise from close proximity of workers, firms and education bodies mean truly effective devolution must be underpinned by agglomeration. Think of it as Devolution + Agglomeration Economics = Growth and a Knowledge-Based Economy.

The two highest profile agglomeration projects in England – the Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine – have 50 universities between them. Higher education, as a knowledge industry, contributes to the agglomeration economies that drive city growth. This is evident in London, with over 40 higher education institutions. Other areas in line for devolution deals will often have at least one university on their patch. Here are four ways universities can help.

  1. If devolved areas are to be functional economic actors, there will need to be effective coordination between the different towns, cities and local authorities within the area. Universities can help. They have long-standing networks between and within regions. Universities have a long history of supporting local areas with analysis of needs and assets, and providing of evidence and policy insight. This will continue with Science and Innovation Audits that will help to map local research, innovation and infrastructure strengths and uncover opportunities for businesses.

  2. Locally-built international links will be important. Universities can draw on their global alumni and international research networks. Universities attract overseas students but also foreign direct investment. When considering regional investment in the UK, the skills of the local workforce and transport infrastructure are the key factors that influence decisions.

  3. Agglomeration economics can be seen in practice within universities. Many university campuses are public spaces, providing community services and cultural events, and the line between the public realm and the university estate is softening. Universities are ideal hosts for the human face-to-face connections that spread new ideas and knowledge. They often house incubation centres for startups and social enterprises, work with SMEs, and generate cutting edge research.

  4. Universities can meet local skills needs. There is a strong correlation between cities with more skills and higher levels of human capital, and local employment growth.1 The majority of future growth and the rebalancing of the economy will rely on knowledge based industries which are dependent on high level skills.

Recognising that devolution is a journey rather than a destination, universities should provide a long-term vision and help local partners to overcome the challenges and recognise the opportunities that come with devolved powers.

This blog is in three parts. Previously we looked at the future of the Northern Powerhouse. Next we’ll look at an international example of agglomeration economics in action.

Photo: ‘Granary Wharf’ (Leeds) on Flickr


  1. Shapiro, J., Smart Cities: Quality of Life, Productivity, and the Growth Effects of Human Capital, NBER Working Paper No. 11615, p.2; Glaeser, E. and Resseger, M., The Complementarity between Cities and Skills, NBER Working Paper No. 15103, p.17 

Is the Northern Powerhouse dead?

The name may have fallen victim to shifts in the political landscape but the idea is a sound one

The past few weeks have been full of speculation as to the future of the Northern Powerhouse, the plan to create strong links between urban areas in northern England. The Northern Powerhouse was a mainstay of the Cameron government, and closely linked to George Osborne.

The Northern Powerhouse concept is underpinned by agglomeration – the idea that the concentration of people, businesses and education establishments in close proximity leads to new knowledge, transfer of new ideas and greater productivity. It’s a really good idea. I talked about it (under the guise of proximity) here. There’s plenty of academic work on agglomeration economies and clustering effects, and it is the driving force behind many of the City Growth Commission’s final recommendations.

But is the Northern Powerhouse still alive?

On 27 July Northern Powerhouse minister Andrew Percy and Treasury commercial secretary Lord O’Neill reaffirmed the government’s commitment to building a Northern Powerhouse. (Lord O’Neill had previously threatened to quit if the Northern Powerhouse dies. A few weeks later he threatened to quit again, this time over the UK’s approach to China. He’s not having a good month.)

However, Theresa May hasn’t mentioned the words Northern Powerhouse since assuming office. Her Economy and Industrial Strategy Cabinet Committee met for the first time on 2 August 2016 – the press release doesn’t mention the Northern Powerhouse either, but quotes May: we ‘need a plan to drive growth up and down the country, from rural areas to our great cities’. Many commentators have picked up on this – perhaps previous plans were too Manchester-centric, or the government needs to appease voters in large swathes of the country that voted to leave the EU, or the plans were too closely associated with the former chancellor. A broader focus seems inevitable.

At the same time, Andy Burnham used his nomination as Labour candidate for Manchester mayor to campaign for the resurrection of the Northern Powerhouse – a curious case of a Labour politician pushing a Conservative policy.

However, as Alexandra Jones notes on the Centre for Cities blog, a likely outcome is that work on the Northern Powerhouse continues, but the name might be quietly dropped. We may well see a more diverse range of future devolution deals, including for the first time some in the south of England, and a softening of the requirement for elected mayors. It will be difficult to do, but encouraging effective agglomeration more widely is a good move.

This blog is in three parts. Tomorrow we’ll look at how universities can help realise the benefits of agglomeration. And next week we’ll look at an international example of agglomeration economics in action.

Photo: ‘Salford Quay Apartments’ on Flickr

University campuses can be a testbed for smart cities

By seeing campuses as ‘cities in microcosm’ the development of smart infrastructure can lead to closer working between universities and local leaders

India wants 100 of them. China had 193 pilots of these running in 2013. At the moment they are largely conceptual, little known by the average person on the street, mostly ‘captured’ by commercial interests, and, as I’ve written about before, we are still some way from realising their transformative potential. But smart city initiatives will be an important part of future city development.

Universities can help shift smart cities from being merely a good idea to providing everyday benefit to citizens. They can do this through smart campuses – developing the principles of smart cities on a limited geographic area, testing new infrastructure and implementing lessons learned, drawing in students and researchers, and then working with city officials to roll these out more widely.

The University of Glasgow is expanding its campus by 25% over ten years. The university is working with the Future Cities Catapult on a project to ‘develop a strategy for a Smart Campus that will take into account changes in technology and learning whilst also protecting their heritage (both cultural and physical) and realising cost savings’. The Catapult has developed a definition of the smart campus that supports the university’s new strategy:

The Smart Campus actively learns from and adapts to the needs of its people and place, unlocking the potential of e technology and enabling world-changing learning and research.

Other universities have been working on smart campus projects. The University of Nottingham plans to develop a smart campus that is ‘efficient, safe, sustainable, responsive and enjoyable place to live and work, underpinned and enhanced by digital / internet based technologies’. They see the campus as ‘an ideal vehicle’ for researching, developing and evaluating a ‘diversity’ of smart city concepts, especially as the university is multi-site and encircles a major hospital. The project has attracted the interest of Nottingham City Council.

A case study of the University of Lille presented to the World Bank in 2014 applies elements of smart cities – smart sensors, smart data analysis – to a university campus based in a city. The angle of this presentation seems to suggest the campus could act as a city in microcosm and thus be a good test case for wider implementation, for example managing water, energy and transport on campus. There would also be other benefits to embedding ‘smart’ on a campus: immediate access to expertise and researchers, reinforcing partnerships with local government and with the private sector, and capturing learning in new education programmes that could be delivered to students alongside implementation on campus. Developing a smart campus is arguably easier than developing smart city, with most of the campus falling under the ownership of one institution. In essence, the presentation concludes, the smart campus could ‘promote the concept of smart city to the city’.

Vegas

Lessons

It’s important to prepare students and staff (the campus equivalent of a city’s residents) for smart campuses. After analysing the experiences of smart cities around the world, Nesta have found that many ‘top down’ smart city ideas have failed to deliver on their promise, and that smart city planners need to take human behaviour as seriously as technology, and to invest in smart people, as well as smart technology.

By blurring the public realm and the university estate, city residents can become involved in the development of smart cities

Local government and city leaders may be keen to test the concept of a smart city by supporting the development of a smart campus. By seeing campuses as ‘cities in microcosm’ the development of smart infrastructure can lead to closer working between universities and local leaders. And by softening the edges between a campus and a city, by opening up campuses as public spaces, providing community services and cultural events, by blurring the public realm and the university estate, other city residents can become involved in the development of smart cities.

At the same time, universities can learn from the experience of smart cities. For example, whilst technology is an important component that underpins smart cities and campuses, they need to be developed with people at their core.

Universities are ideally placed to both apply the lessons from smart cities in the development of smart campuses, and to ‘test’ smart infrastructure that can be rolled out to smart cities.

The future is local (and so are global challenges): the example of Rotterdam

Mayors are on the rise globally, but they need to be backed by a wide partnership inside and beyond their city

A recurring theme of this blog is how cities, rather than nations, will be on the front line tackling global challenges in the future.

I was fortunate to attend the European Social Services Conference in The Hague last week. The headline was ‘The future is local!’ and the event explored how public services can collaborate more effectively with local communities and their citizens in combatting poverty and social exclusion.

One of the headline speakers was Ahmed Aboutaleb, Mayor of Rotterdam. Across the world mayors are on the rise, not least in the UK with a recent raft of devolution deals including directly elected mayors for cities and regions, and likely to provide an alternate route to power for ambitious politicians.

Universities and colleges are included as partners for delivery, sources of expertise, and opportunities for sharing knowledge

Mayor Aboutaleb talked of the need to strengthen regional government, and of the opportunities higher education could provide for lifting the next generation out of poverty. I took the opportunity to visit Rotterdam, and it provides a good example of a city on the front line, gearing up to tackle large-scale problems. With 80% of the city below sea level and one of the largest ports in the world, Rotterdam is especially susceptible to climate change and has an ambition to become 100% climate-proof by 2025. The city’s adaptation strategy presents climate change as an opportunity for growth through developing smart solutions and making the city a more attractive place to live and work – and I found Rotterdam to already be an exceptionally well-designed city. Universities and further education colleges are included as partners for delivery, sources of expertise, and opportunities for sharing knowledge to other areas. Unsurprisingly, Rotterdam is also one of the 100 resilient cities (see my earlier post on resilience).

Rotterdam is a good example of a city with an effective mayor, backed by a wide range of partners, tackling international challenges. The self-styled Global Parliament of Mayors will have its inaugural meeting in The Hague (which is clearly the place to be) in September 2016, bringing together 125 cities – ‘large and small, from North and South, developed and emerging’. The group has the explicit purpose of crafting solutions to challenges, although, as a semi-critical Guardian writer notes, ‘what they might really be interested in is a global parliament of cities, rather than mayors, and that idea – a networked, global assembly of citydwellers, sharing hard-won insights into what works and what generally does not – strikes me as a far better plan’. Mayors are on the rise, but an effective mayor will need to be backed by a wide partnership inside and beyond the city.

Photo: Jurriaan Snikkers on Unsplash

Resilient cities, resilient sectors

“How do you keep partnering with cities over an entire generation? Not just to 2020 but 2030, because that’s when we’ll see the kinds of change we’re really looking for.”

Whilst working for UNESCO in Vietnam we hosted a training programme for senior Ministry of Education and Training staff on disaster risk reduction, looking at the role of policy makers in times of crisis. 35 officials were joined by two vice ministers, a crate of imported vodka and the excellent facilitation skills of Moustafa Osman in a countryside resort 50km from Hanoi.

We argued that the education sector should be placed at the centre of national disaster risk reduction initiatives – not only is the maintenance of education during disasters a form of preserving ‘normality’ in times of crisis, but even small lapses in primary education can have long-term detrimental effects on individuals and society. And education itself can reduce a community’s vulnerability to disaster.

Resilience in the education sector meant bringing the right people together, and ensuring they knew their roles and the roles of others in times of emergency. Specifically, that they would know what to do internally within the Ministry and externally with Departments of Education and Training at the local level in the area of disaster preparedness, response and recovery.

Saigon2

Resilient cities

I’ve been following with interest the 100 resilient cities programme, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and ‘dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century’.

Each of the 100 cities appoints a Chief Resilience Officer as part of the programme. Just as the emphasis in the education sector in Vietnam was effective communication and liaison, one of the key tasks of the Chief Resilience Officer will be to work across government departments to help a city improve internal communications, and to bring together a wide array of stakeholders to learn about the city’s challenges.

Universities should be active partners in the work of each of the 100 resilient cities. They often already have a good understanding of the complex systems that make up a city, already work with communities, businesses and other parts of the education system, and provide evidence and analysis on city assets and needs.

Perhaps the greatest reason for universities contributing to resilience planning would be their long-term presence in cities – in some cases universities were founded hundreds of years ago, and they often plan decades ahead. As Michael Berkowitz, the president of the programme, said in an interview with the Guardian:

The ultimate change we’re trying to see in cities – more cohesive communities, better infrastructure, more integrated planning, better mobility – these are things that happen over a generation, not just a couple of years. So one of the questions we’re asking now is how do you keep partnering with cities over an entire generation? Not just to 2020 but 2030, because that’s when we’ll see the kinds of change we’re really looking for.

Photos: ‘Vietnam // Việt Nam’ by lab604

Is connectivity important for universities?

Just as isolated cities will struggle to attract skilled workers and international businesses, universities that aren’t connected will struggle to become conduits of knowledge

The central paradox of the modern metropolis is that ‘proximity has become ever more valuable as the cost of connecting across long distance has fallen’, writes Ed Glaeser in Triumph of the City. Proximity means people, businesses and universities are packed closely together, enabling new ideas to grow, knowledge to spread and innovation to flourish. Although video conferencing may be free, ideas spread better face-to-face. The growth of knowledge allows the city to triumph.

This thinking isn’t new. In 1890 Alfred Marshall wrote:

When an industry has thus chosen a locality for itself, it is likely to stay there long: so great are the advantages which people following the same skilled trade get from near neighbourhood to one another. The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously. Good work is rightly appreciated, inventions and improvements in machinery, in processes and the general organization of the business have their merits promptly discussed: if one man starts a new idea, it is taken up by others and combined with suggestions of their own; and thus it becomes the source of further new ideas.

However, this is not to say that connectivity isn’t important: connectivity is vital for cities.1 Dense, local knowledge economies need to be connected to global markets; they need to be, returning to Gleaser’s analysis, ‘conduits for knowledge’. For example, Bangalore is an ‘urban education hub’, a concentration of IT firms and thousands of skilled workers, and a conduit for knowledge through the co-location of local and international businesses. In a virtuous cycle, the proximity of skilled workers and knowledge firms in turn increases the city’s attractiveness to international businesses and its connectivity.

Connected universities

Higher education underpins these knowledge economies through research, education and training, and providing a space for innovation and creativity. But how important is it for universities themselves to be connected?

Universities can help improve their locality, but also transcend it

Universities are ideally positioned to bridge local, national and international. With their local roots (and many universities were founded to serve their community) and their wider institutional, research and alumni networks, universities can help improve their locality, but also transcend it to help connect their locality to the wider world. And just as isolated cities will struggle to attract skilled workers and international businesses and find it difficult to develop a knowledge-based economy, those universities that aren’t connected will struggle to become conduits of knowledge.2

Bangalore2

Measuring connectivity

I was interested to read that the two largest falls in the 2016 Universitas 21 ranking of national higher education systems were Canada, down three places to ninth, and Bulgaria, down five places to 48th, due mainly to a ‘fall in ranking on connectivity’. The methodology defines connectivity as ‘the two-way flow of information between the higher education sector and the rest of society’. A closer look shows that Canada actually performed quite well on this measure (top ranked for connectivity are Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, the United Kingdom and Belgium) but Sweden and Hungary fell. There are six measures for connectivity:

  1. Proportion of international students in tertiary education, 2013.
  2. Proportion of articles co-authored with international collaborators, 2013.
  3. Number of open access full text files on the web, per head of population, July 2015.
  4. External links that university web domains receive from third parties, per head of population, 2015.
  5. Responses to question ‘Knowledge transfer is highly developed between companies and universities’, asked of business executives in the annual survey by IMD World Development Centre, Switzerland, 2015.
  6. Percentage of university research publications that are co-authored with industry researchers, 2011-13.

In a future post I will brainstorm a wider range of possible connectivity measures. For example, these measures don’t capture connections between city governments and universities. These don’t necessarily need to be international; good connectivity means smaller cities are well linked to their larger neighbours. UN Habitat’s 2016 World Cities Report notes that:

The only certainty about the next few decades is that… uncertainty and risk will become permanent features of society and governance, and this Report argues in favour of “a city that plans,” as opposed to a planned city. Consequently, institutions must also be endowed with the capacity to learn and adapt on a continuous basis. This requires pro-active investment in dynamic regional innovation systems, ideally buttressed by effective metropolitan authorities. If they are, as required, to promote resource-efficient built environments and underlying infrastructures, local governments must support regional innovation systems that connect “green” businesses, universities, think-tanks, social movements, social entrepreneurs and State-owned enterprises. Where these are in short supply locally, agreements can be made with larger urban centres in the country or in other parts of the world. (p.119)

Often universities are at the centre of knowledge economies, or innovation districts. Their exact location is important, yet so are their wider connections. Well-connected cities will often have well-connected universities at their core, and a well-connected university will support – and be supported by – a connected city.

For universities, as with cities, proximity does count, but so does connectivity.

Photo Credit: Bangalore Junctions by Scalino via Compfight cc


  1. And growing in importance. In a book about connected cities, Parag Khanna writes that ‘connectivity is destiny’. ‘Diplomacy among cities is the return of an ancient pattern. But it also dis-intermediates state structures. Cities building physical and institutional connectivity among each other, as well as growing demographic and economic power, is how they become the drivers of this new system’. (See also, ‘are interregional relations the new international relations?’
  2. I would stress that a connected university does not necessarily equal a research-intensive university. Many business-facing institutions or those focussed on opening opportunities to disadvantaged local communities excel in their mission because they are able to lever wider connections in their work.